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Recently, I got an e-mail from one of the boys who made that trip with me. He wrote to tell me:

“I've just graduated from NYU. And I realize it was all thanks to you. I went to a school I wanted to go to in a city I really love, all because you showed me I could. If we hadn't made that trip years ago, I would have been too nervous to move to Manhattan to go to college all on my own. But you helped me to see there was nothing to be afraid of...”

That's my goal in writing to you now. My hope is that four or five years from now, maybe sooner, I'll get e-mails from some of you reading this thanking me for showing you that, despite what you may have heard or read, Medellin, Colombia, qualifies as one of the best places in the world to restart your life.

I tell you with confidence that you can do it, because I've done it. I've been living here full-time for two years. This city has allowed me to reinvent my life completely.

I first came to Medellin four years ago with a friend who asked me if I wanted to tag along with him and his wife who were coming here for vacation. At the time, I thought, Colombia?! Why would anyone want to go to Colombia?

But I came along. The trip was one of the most important turning points of my life.

Back in Pittsburgh, I'm a landscape architect. I have a firm that works with the rich and famous...professional athletes, big-deal CEOs, etc. I'm not walking away from that. I'm in touch with my clients up there all the time. I'm still running my business.

But, at the same time, I'm reinventing my life. That first trip to Medellin two years ago, I fell in love, both with the city and with one of its daughters, a beautiful woman named Michelle. We're going to be married soon. Then I'll have five children--my two in the States and her three here. Talk about a life change.

But I've never felt better. I've never been happier. Never felt younger. Old friends back in Pittsburgh, when they see me, tell me I look better than I have in two decades.

This is a beautiful city. And, yes, it's safe. I'm getting to know it at a very local level. I'm becoming part of a local Colombian family. I'm being welcomed and supported.

At a time when I could be thinking about winding down my life, I'm restarting it. I feel very, very fortunate to have discovered this special city, and I want you to know that, if you, like me, decide you'd like to make this city your home, you can do it.

You can do it.

Ed Bayer

P.S. From Kathleen Peddicord:

Retire to Colombia? Why would I be recommending that an average retiree consider launching his new life in retirement in Medellin, Colombia, of all places? What am I...crazy?

In fact, I've been called crazy (and worse) for years...for decades. People called me crazy when I first recommended Costa Rica as a retirement haven nearly 30 years ago. They called me crazy when I recommended Belize a few years later...then Roatan, Honduras...Ecuador...Panama...

Now those destinations are recognized and appreciated as the world's top retirement havens and home, each one, to many thousands of expat retirees who've taken my crazy advice over the years.

I don't mind being called crazy. To me, crazy is just another word for forward-thinking. Eventually, the rest of the world will catch up...as they have in Belize, Ecuador, Panama, etc.

Meantime, I'll keep beating this drum. Medellin, Colombia, qualifies as one of the most appealing, most comfortable, most interesting, and most affordable places in the world to think about reinventing your life. Don't take my word for it (remember...I'm crazy). Come on down to Medellin to take a look for yourself.

I'll meet you there. Details are here.

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The real Cali? This is a city with not unpleasant warm weather (as I'd been warned), great cafes, restaurants, and nightlife, and some of the friendliest people I've met in Colombia. It's also a city whose real estate market is one of the best bargains in the world right now.

I've been spending time in Colombia for three years, and I've only just now made it to Cali... despite the fact that the city has been strongly recommended to me by everyone I've met who knows it. Part of the problem is that my base in Colombia is Medellín. I, like the other expats I know living in Medellín, believe we've already found the continent's best city and have trouble prying ourselves away to explore the rest of Colombia.

But after just a day in Cali, I can see why people like it here. In fact, I can see why some prefer it to Medellín.

Cali offers diverse lifestyle options, from very high-end gated communities in a country setting to lively downtown city living options, from colonial houses to new high-rises.

Also, Cali can be very walkable, depending where you base yourself. I've found a half-dozen neighborhoods where you could reside conveniently without a car. I'll have a closer look at the best of them over the next few days.

What's more, as I mentioned, the weather turned out to be pretty nice, despite the stories I'd heard about Cali's weather resembling a humid Death Valley. It is warmer than Medellín, but a pleasant afternoon/evening breeze cools things off nicely. Many people don't use air conditioning. In other words, it's not that hot and can be quite comfortable, depending on the orientation and location of your house or apartment.

Cali has done an excellent job of conserving its trees, and the streets are pleasantly shady in many sectors. This helps not only with the temperatures inside homes, but it also makes for a more comfortable city to walk and explore, especially in its western neighborhoods. Situated at the confluence of three rivers among gentle hills, Cali offers plenty of parks and riverfront walking areas.

The cost of living here is low. Not only are properties and rents cheaper than in Medellín, but so is a bottle of wine in the grocery store... and dinner out... and property taxes...

Most interesting to me is Cali's real estate market, which is a bargain even by Colombian standards. I've got a full agenda of viewings schedule, and I'll have more details to share with you over the next few days.

Cali is an old city in the Americas, founded in 1536 by Sebastián de Belalcázar...the same guy who founded Quito, Ecuador, a few years earlier. Today's city, which retains an attractive historic center, is divided into 339 separate neighborhoods (barrios) within 22 comunas (administrative sectors). It's the capital of the department (province) of Valle de Cauca.

The daily high temperatures here average 88°, with only ±1° of seasonal variation. Low temps average 65.5°, with only about a half-degree of seasonal variation (that's 31°C and 18.5°C, respectively). April and October are the rainiest months, while December, January, and August are the driest. Cali's elevation is around 1,000 meters, which is 3,250 feet above sea level.

Each day around 4 p.m. or so, a pleasant breeze blows through the city, and cools things off nicely. I've heard locals call it the chiflón, which means “draft” in Spanish.

Caleños are warm, friendly, and unpretentious. People are also friendly in Medellín, but in a more formally polite and reserved way. People in Cali are more down-to-earth and more willing to strike up a conversation and engage a stranger in more than a superficial way. In fact, I've found this to be true throughout southern Colombia, in places like Popayán, Pasto, and Ipiales.

Cali claims to have the world's most beautiful women, and, indeed, the woman here are beautiful, probably thanks to their unique ethnic mix (which is European, African, and Native American). But I've heard this claim made by many other cities, too. In fact, Medellín claims to have the world's most beautiful women because the Europeans in that part of the country supposedly did not mix with other peoples.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

Cali offers good flight connections around Colombia and nonstop service to Miami. The public transit system—new in 2010—is efficient and well-organized, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. I have yet to spend more than US$2.25 for a cab ride with all of the inter-neighborhood hopping I've done. I rented a cab for a half-day for US$11.50 per hour; a fare that included a driver who was a certified guide, happy to share historic facts and anecdotes.

To get an idea of the cityscape, take a look at the video I shot from a couple of high points in Cali.

Over the next few days, I'll be scouting some of Cali's best areas for living and investing in real estate and will be touring upscale apartments on the market for less than US$100k. More details to follow soon.

Meantime, back at the French café La Tartine on the plaza in Cali's El Peñón neighborhood, I've ordered dessert. I wish you could hear the mixers whirring as the owner makes the merengue that will soon top my lemon tart.

Cali is not what you think it is.

Lee Harrison

Editor's Note: Cali will be among the destinations featured as part of our 2014 Live and Invest in Colombia Conference. We'll be opening registration for this, the only Colombia event on this year's calendar, within the next 10 days. Meantime, go here now to get your name on the Hot List for special discounts and VIP perks.

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Arriving in Medellin has the opposite physical effects. Your heart slows a bit, your mind settles.

Unlike Panama City, Medellin's cityscape isn't all high-rise condo towers and features nary a single building of glass or steel. From any height (the windows of one of the city's luxury penthouse apartments for example, or the top of one of the surrounding hills), Medellin appears a sea of red clay tiles and red brick buildings interspersed regularly by patches of foliage and flowers. The effect, again, is calming, peaceful.

You can learn a lot about a place both from and by its taxi drivers. They're a top source of getting-to-know-a-city information and insights, of course, but they're also a barometer of the mood of a place. In Panama City, taxi drivers are in a hurry. They honk their horns constantly. They weave in and out of traffic, from lane to lane, pushing for constant progress. They can't abide sitting still or even slowing down. They run traffic lights and ignore “Stop” signs. They also tend to be unhelpful, even rude. A Panamanian friend describes them as “among the least appealing people on earth.” I can think of a handful of exceptions, but, in general, I'd agree with my friend.

In Medellin, the taxi drivers, like their city, are gentler and calmer, happy to stop to offer directions or even to chat. In Medellin, you rarely hear the honking of a car horn, not by a taxi driver and not by anyone else either. It's also worth noting that, in Medellin, taxis are not only ever-present, but also always painted yellow and metered, unlike in many of the places where we recommend you spend time. Again, orderly...genteel.

Medellin is impressively green, with trees, plants, and small gardens everywhere, and remarkably clean. In the central neighborhoods, you see no litter. The metro, a point of pride for the local population, is spotless and like new. At every station and in every train we've ever ridden, I've looked for but have been unable to find even a cigarette butt or piece of gum on the ground.

Panama is working hard to clean up and green up its capital city. The long stretch of parkland along the bay known as the Cinta Costera has dramatically changed the face of Panama City for the better (and is being expanded). Still, while one might describe Medellin as genteel, an appropriate adjective for Panama City might be gritty.

Walking around Medellin, especially outside the central tourist zone, Lief and I feel like an anomaly. This is less and less true, as Medellin becomes more discovered by expats and retirees. However, in Panama City, Americans are everywhere. We have been part of the landscape in this city for a hundred years.

From a cost of living perspective, I'd put these two cities on par...depending on the relative strength of the Colombian peso. Right now, the U.S. dollar is at the upper end of the range it's traded in versus the peso over the past five years. We watch this, looking for opportunities to change dollars into pesos to cover carrying costs for our apartment in Medellin. (Right now, for example, would be a good time to make a dollar-peso exchange if that's an agenda for you.)

In Panama, where US$1 is US$1, this isn't an issue. The American in Panama has no exchange-rate risk to worry about. If you intend to retire on an income fixed in dollars, this can be an important plus.

Both markets offer interesting real estate investment opportunities. The real estate market in Panama City, after settling post-2008, has begun to appreciate again. Today, you can buy the best this market has to offer for US$1,500 to US$2,200 per square meter. A year from now, this will not be the case. Central Panama City values are going to move up steadily from here for the next few years.

In Medellin, meantime, you can buy in El Poblado, considered the best address in the city, for as little as US$1,200 per square meter (resale). In less central, more local neighborhoods, you can buy for less. The real estate market in Medellin reminds me of the market in Panama City when we first began paying attention to it about a dozen years ago.

Panama is one of the world's most welcoming countries when it comes to establishing residency. In Panama, the would-be expat, retiree, or entrepreneur has more than a dozen options for how to establish full-time residency, including the new “Friends of Panama” visa option, which amounts not only to the most user-friendly, turn-key residency option in the world today but also the most user-friendly, turn-key residency option in the history of residency options. Plus, it can lead to a work permit, which is a big deal.

Colombia, too, though, offers good foreign residency options, including one for pensioners and another for investors. The minimum investment requirement in each case can be less than for comparable options in Panama.

One practical matter that is not as straightforward in Colombia as it is in Panama is opening a bank account. It's not possible as a foreigner to open a local bank account in Colombia unless you have a personal introduction to the bank. If someone tells you otherwise, they're speaking optimistically and not from real-world experience.

The alternative is to open an account with what's called a “fiduciary,” the local equivalent of Charles Schwab. Unlike opening a bank account, this is relatively straightforward and a reasonable strategy for dealing with local bills. The downside is that transaction fees can be high.

The other downside to Medellin compared with Panama City is that few in Medellin speak English, whereas, in Panama City, it's possible to get by speaking no Spanish.

In addition, Medellin (again, very unlike Panama) is not a tax haven, and taxes are high. Living here, your tax burden could increase, depending on your nationality, where you hold legal residency, and where your income comes from. The country even imposes a wealth tax (after five years of residency). Note, though, that moving to Colombia with only retirement income should be a tax-neutral event. Colombia, like most countries, doesn't tax foreign retirement income.

Unlike Panama, Colombia imposes exchange controls. These are manageable if you plan and execute any investment in the country carefully and correctly. But, again, they're not an issue at all in Panama.

Bottom line, here's how I'd break all this down...

Panama City Versus Medellin:

Cost Of Living: It's a tie, more or less, depending on the relative strength of the Colombian peso...

Cost Of Real Estate: As much as 50% less expensive in Medellin...

Climate: Way more comfortable in Medellin...

Quality Of Life: This is completely subjective and impossible to pin down. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and say that the overall quality of life is more appealing in Medellin than in Panama City...

Ease Of Residency: Panama is one of the easiest places in the world for a foreigner to establish full-time legal residency, especially if he comes from one of the countries included in the new “Friends of Panama” visa program. However, Colombia is also a very straightforward option in this regard. Certainly, I wouldn't take Colombia off my list for fear of a complicated struggle related to becoming a resident...

Ease Of Banking And Doing Business: Here, Panama wins hands down, with its international banking industry (the exchange-of-information treaty the country signed with the United States in 2010 notwithstanding); its lack of any exchange controls; the absence in this market of any currency exchange risk (as Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its currency); and its greater prevalence of English-language speakers...

Infrastructure And Accessibility: Another tie...

Taxes: Panama is the screaming champion on this score, a true tax haven, while Colombia qualifies as a high-tax jurisdiction, with, for example, a corporate tax rate as high as 33%. Again, though, if you're a retiree making a move with retirement income, you probably don't have to care about this...

Health Care: Top notch on an international scale in both cities...

Ease Of Settling In: Panama City is a kind of halfway house for expats, a very easy and comfortable first step overseas. Medellin is more an emerging expat destination, though it is more discovered and therefore easier to navigate as an expat or foreign retiree all the time...

Which city might be better for you?

I couldn't say. As I remind you often, it depends on your personal circumstances, your priorities, and your preferences. What is your current situation and what kind of experience are you looking for?

I can tell you that we've decided not to try to choose but, instead, have worked over the past few years to incorporate Medellin into our long-term retire-overseas plan.

As a friend in Medellin, another expat who also divides his time between that city and Panama City, put it recently: “Do business in Panama but live in Medellin. That's the ticket...”

Lief and I would agree.

Kathleen Peddicord

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The new health system provides full medical coverage, including doctors' visits with no co-pays or deductibles, dental care, and free or discounted prescription medicine. In case of emergency, members can go to any hospital in the country, and the government will pick up all expenses. Although most routine medical services are provided at Social Security hospitals and clinics, it is also possible to receive treatment at hundreds of private health care facilities under contract with the government. Many private pharmacies also have agreements with the government.

Ecuador has invested heavily in public health following the adoption of a new constitution in 2008 that mandates access to health care for all citizens and legal residents. The budget for Social Security health care services has increased almost four-fold since then, from US$561 million to almost US$2 billion in 2013. New hospitals and clinics have been built or are under construction, old facilities are being upgraded, and the government has doubled the number of doctors on contract with the system.

In addition, new equipment has been purchased, particularly for the system's larger hospitals. In Cuenca, for example, a new-generation linear accelerator has been installed in the oncology unit of Carrasco José Arteaga Hospital. The accelerator, one of only seven in South America, targets inoperable malignant tumors up to seven millimeters in size and has demonstrated a high cure rate.

Ecuadorians have given the expanded health care system a resounding vote of confidence. In less than four years, enrollment in the Social Security health care system has grown from 3.2 million to 8 million. Much of the growth is the result of workers who have been paying into Social Security for years but, not trusting the quality of government health care, had been paying out-of-pocket for care from private providers. As a result, the country's private health insurance industry reports a steep decline in the number of new policies being written.

What does all of this mean for expats and foreign retirees, specifically? It means that, legally resident in this country, you now have access to greatly improved and completely free health care. However, there are downsides to the public health care system that you should be aware of before signing up.

The expansion means growing pains and sometimes limited resources. Social Security patients in some areas, such as Santo Domingo and Ibarra, report waits of up to two months to see specialists, and shortages of medications have been reported in some areas. The government says it working to fix the problems and plans to hire an additional 2,000 doctors by the end of 2014; the country is actively recruiting in Spain and Cuba.

Another factor to consider is that the quality and availability of services vary from cities to towns and rural areas. Those living in Cuenca, Quito, and Guayaquil have access to the best doctors and services, while those in rural areas may not receive the same level of care or will be required to travel to facilities in larger cities.

In addition, it is an undeniable fact that government-run programs involve a high level of bureaucracy and red tape. An expat not fluent in Spanish could have trouble navigating the system.

Despite the drawbacks, expats who have used the government system report that they have received excellent care and saved thousands of dollars. An expat who lives in Quito says she is extremely impressed by the system's improvements and expects things to continue to get better.

This expat offers some advice for others who are thinking of relocating to Ecuador and possibly taking advantage of this new health care option. If you are not fluent in Spanish, she says, have an Ecuadorian friend or acquaintance go with you on your first visits to clinics and hospitals. Your friend not only can serve as a translator for you, but as an advocate, as well. This expat with experience also points out that many English-speaking private practice physicians work for the Social Security health system, too, and can be invaluable in making arrangements for their expat patients.

Although application for voluntary enrollment can be made at any Social Security office in Ecuador (officially the Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad, or IESS), it is also possible to sign up on line at www.iess.gob.ec.

In addition to health care, voluntary members of the system are also entitled to other Social Security system benefits, including low interest loans for home purchases, funeral expense assistance, and unemployment benefits.

Although joining the government program is not for all expats, it is a great option for those who might not otherwise be able to obtain low-cost health insurance.

David Morrill

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“Then,” Kaitlin continued, “just a couple of weeks ago, they heard about our VIP Panama Circle group. As I said, they already had their trip to Panama planned, but, when they read about our personalized hand-holding service, they decided it was exactly what they needed to make sure their administration trip went as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.

“They signed up for the Panama Circle. Then our Panama Circle Liaison, Marion de Mena, got in touch with them to ask how we could be of help. They told her about their planned visit to Panama and explained that they hadn't yet figured out which lawyers or banks to meet with.

“Marion sent them our list of recommendations. They made their choices, and Marion set up appointments. At the same time, Marion asked the couple if they were planning to attend our upcoming Panama conference, as the dates for their trip to Panama overlapped with the conference dates...and, as Panama Circle members, they could attend free.

“The couple replied to say they didn't even know the conference was taking place. Was it too late to sign up, they wanted to know?

“Of course not, Marion told them. We've always got seats in the room for Panama Circle members. Marion got them registered for the event...and now, today, here they are! They're a very nice couple, and they're having a great time,” Kaitlin added.

Then this from Kaitlin via Skype on Friday:

“I just spoke with a man who explained that he's here in Panama this week as a first stop. From here, he's going on to Belize and Colombia to compare and make up his mind.

“He told me that he wants Florida to be his hub, because from there he can hop quick direct flights to all the countries he's interested in. He's right now considering his choices in this part of the world, but he's also planning to spend time in Europe and Asia. Plus he's keeping his 'little Florida place,' as he put it and will spend some time there each year, too.

“'I think Panama is for me,' he said, but he doesn't want to be in the city. He's interested in the interior of the country and will be exploring there after the conference.

“He said that he thinks Belize might be too extreme of a relaxation destination for him. He still works two jobs and wants to remain active. 'I don't want to be lazing around in a hammock and I don't want to live in that kind of an atmosphere either,' he told me. He wants activity but also a place that is a little removed from the rat race. I think he's right. Panama could be perfect for him...”

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. As much as I've appreciated the e-mails and instant messages keeping me connected with everything going on at the conference this week, it isn't the same as having been there. I've missed out on updates on real estate markets and values across the country, on any changes in residency opportunities, on all the real-life expat stories, on insights into the Panama City rental market right now, on the stories and photos of the adventure guide we invited...

I'm looking forward to listening to it all, though, as soon as the recordings of each presentation have been edited. Every speaker was recorded...all 31 of them. We'll bundle the set of recordings with all the PowerPoint support material (including photos) to create our new Live and Invest in Panama Home Conference Kit, which will be available for fulfillment within the next two weeks.

You can reserve your copy now pre-release and save more than 50% off the price. Go here to do that now.
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Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.

Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

Read more here.

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